My brother Dave died suddenly last Sunday. Dave had many medical issues, and had been close to death several times before, so his passing was not a surprise. But it is still a shock. A shock that is morphing into a reminder, perhaps even a lesson.
Death is not a new experience for me. My parents died a decade ago. I’ve lost most of my aunts and uncles. I’ve been in the hospital room when dear friends died. I lived through the early years of HIV/AIDS when so many others around me did not. And yet Dave’s death is different. Each has been different. But this one feels more personal.
Maybe it’s more personal because my older brother was my hero when I was a kid. I was a scrawny fifth grader, one of the smallest kids in the class, and he played linebacker on the high school football team. When he met his future wife Kris, I tagged along with them fairly often to softball games or on errands. But as I grew older I moved away from Lynden, and they stayed. The path I found into adulthood took me further and further away from Lynden, from my family, from Dave.
Maybe it’s more personal because this is my generation, and we are all getting to be an age where “natural causes” is a valid cause of death. It’s hard to not speculate. Did Dave open the floodgates for the passing of my siblings, for me? Who’s next?
Miraculously, my siblings and our partners in life gathered for a reunion two weeks ago. We met at the little house the Jim Ginn and I have been building in Methow Valley, and we had a good time together. We laughed. We prepared way too much food. We ate. And as our family does, we sang together. Old hymns that we (mostly) knew the words to by heart.
One of those hymns was “It is Well with My Soul.” We forgot a few of the words in the middle verses, but sang lustily on verses 1 and 4. “And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight…” In the quiet after singing, Dave spoke up.
“You all know I’ve done some things in my life,” he began. We’d been ribbing him earlier about some of his more notorious youthful pranks. He continued in a faltering voice. “But I want you to know, if anything happens, it is well with my soul.”
My sisters, who’d been weepy during the whole reunion, bawled out loud, and we guys joined in. And then we went on with our reunion, most of us knowing that for some reason this would be the last time we’d all be together in this life.
And now Dave is gone. We are seven instead of eight.
So what’s the reminder or lesson that I mentioned? Death is not the end of life, it is part of life. If we spend all our time and energy trying to avoid death, we will never really live. If we avoid getting close to people because we don’t want to risk losing them, then we will miss out on the riches of their love completely.
My sister-in-law Kris had to beg the emergency room medical staff to stop CPR on Dave on Sunday. They’d been at it for 40 minutes when she intervened and told them to “Just stop.” Only then could there be peace.
And so goes our twisted culture. Two things are true about all of us. We were born. And we will die. And as a culture we spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to avoid the latter. I’m not in favor of suffering. But neither am I in favor of extending “life” at any cost.
In Deuteronomy, Moses is credited with a magnificent final opus. It includes the following:
I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live… (Deuteronomy 30.19 – NRSV)
Choose life, knowing that life includes death.